Western Short Story
The Big Tree
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

Most people around the southwest desert part of the country guessed the lone tree living for who knows how long on the sandy soil, was a Mexican Palo Verde beast, thick at its midpoint, heavy with twisted branches, and it had been around long enough to have shielded Ace Palmer’s father from bandits who had raided the stagecoach of the passengers’ goods.

For all we know, or have never caught up to, it might have been there in that spot for a thousand years.

Even at a distance, this lone tree for miles was knuckled with knots, knocks and knobs, a misery of twisted fingers and messy arms thick like a muscled giant, and every element of its growth threw a chunk of shadow on the hottest day in the Sonoran Desert right there where it crawled near hot as Hell between Arizona and Mexico.

The bulk of the tree, thickest where Ace Palmer’s father needed it, had swallowed several shots meant for his father, a lone rider coming on the scene of the robbery, his mind directly on the sandy earth and the lone tree like a signpost on the trail, one he hailed on each trip to the nearest town, Hammer’s End, near a day’s journey in length, long enough for a night’s stay-over, talk to a few friends, have a few suds, bunk down any available place out of people’s way, in a cheap bed, an empty stall. Or again, in a wide-open space where life might hug him to sleep.

Now, a man wanted firewood for the coming night from that lone tree and stood with an ax in his hands as he contemplated which twist or hunk of limb would suit him best. The man, most likely a complete stranger to the area, and to the tree itself, was obviously being selective in his approach to the singular growth: wanting to get the most out of the least effort on his part, enough firewood to get him through the night, and on his way in the morning

“Not on this day,” screamed from Ace’s mouth as he spurred his mount’s pace to a new type of rescue, never before ever dreamed of saying the tree as old or older than time, at least his time, and that of all locals who passed this way.

Then Ace fired a round in the air, bringing the ax-wielder to crisp attention, the ax falling to his side, that free hand reaching for his holstered pistol.

Ace yelled, “Not so fast, mister, or I’ll drop you right where you stand, in the shade of a tree that’s been here damned near forever, for sure.” He saluted the tree with his other hand, thinking of his father and all the times he had passed this sort of holy grail.

The ax-man, surprised to say the least, said, “Hell, it’s only a tree. I’ve chopped a hundred of them for nights’ fires, and from here to Montana. I want you to know, whoever you are, that I’ve been around. Nobody ever stopped me from cutting down a tree or cutting a few limbs off it for a night fire against the chill, sometimes downright damned cold. What’s so special about this tree that all the other trees don’t have?”

“That’s the point of it, mister, whatever your name is.”

The ax-man said, “My name is Jud Hooper, and I was hoping to get to the next town in the morning, of course, after a good sleep by the fire.”

“Jud,” said Ace, “my name is Ace Palmer and this tree, like I say as old as Hell maybe, once saved my father’s life during a stagecoach robbery, by taking a half dozen bullets shot at him by the robbers, and thus saving his life. That’s enough for me to keep it in the best shape I can, like alive all the way. You can look around for miles and you won’t see another tree until you get right close to Hammer’s End, the next town the way you and me are headed. My Pa got to Hammer’s End that day because of the tree, which he told me all about when I was old enough to understand and make it part of my history too, him gone too many years now.”

Jud Hooper, suddenly alert to a number of things, replied, “I’m damned sorry to hear that, Ace. That’s a lot of history you just tossed at me, a whole lot of history.” He shook his head as though he didn’t believe what he just said. “But I’m glad I was going in the right direction to get to Hammer’s End. My uncle, Lewis Hooper, my dad’s brother, lives there.”

Ace yelped, “I know Lew. Had a few beers with him a couple of weeks ago, a swell guy, and let me tell you, I better not ever tell him what you were about to do with that ax of yours. He’d disown you on the spot. Do you always carry an ax with you?” Ace stared at the ax, flat on the desert sand, still shining in the shade of the tree.

“For all the places I’ve been,” said Jud, “and for all the nights where and when I needed fires, it’s a good thing I carry it and that’s in its own sheath or scabbard, snug in place, right alongside my rifle, also quick to hand.”

He was, in the meantime, also having second thoughts about what the chopping of a single limb from the tree really meant to him, to his uncle, to Ace Palmer, to Ace’s father, and the people going to and coming this way from Hammer’s End, his mind unable to bring up the number of travelers who spotted the tree from a distance, and knew where they were for sure. Its place in history mushroomed in him, unable to measure the touch of the tree, never mind being known as the man who brought an ax to its limbs.

“Ace,” he said, “I’m sure glad nobody else knows what I was about to do, especially my uncle Lew. What I remember of him, from years past, he’d beat the Hell out of me and then turn me loose into the crowd. That scares the Hell out of me, it really does.”

“Let’s get going to Hammer’s End and your uncle Lew. I’m working up a good thirst, and I promise never to tell him or anybody what you had in mind.”

The pair of new friends eventually rode into the trail town of Hammer’s End, entered the only saloon in the town, the Old Tree Saloon, and found Jud’s uncle a couple of beers ahead of them, and gracing his own end of the bar like he owned it from Day One.

“Good gravy!” yelped Lew Hooper, spinning about and pointing three fingers at the bar keep, “what have we got here? Where did you pair up like you’re brothers?”

Jud Hooper pointed over his shoulder and answered, “In the cozy shade of that monarch out there on the desert, a day’s ride here from the throne of trees,”

Lew Hooper hugged his nephew like he was a new student, and said, “Let me tell you a few things about that tree, my boy,” and the day was well on its way.